Is Plastic Toxic to the Brain? The Dangers of Phthalates

On a daily basis, we use all sorts of home, kitchen, and personal care products. Many of these products either contain contain plastic or are wrapped in plastic packaging. A growing body of scientific literature suggests that plastics contain chemicals that are harmful to the brain, and may increase the risk of brain dysfunction, neurological disorders, and endocrine system disruption, especially in developing infants and young children.

While BPA(bisphenol-A) was among the first toxins found to be harmful to humans (the FDA banned BPA for use in baby bottle ware in 2012), emerging studies suggest that even BPA-free plastic ware may be harmful as well, and can contain other toxins that can potentially wreak havoc on the brain and the endocrine system.

Phthalates are commonly found in plastic ware, personal care products, and baby products

Phthalates are a common chemical found in plastic products, and have been shown to display toxic biological effects. Phthalates are known as ‘plasticizers,’ and are used to make plastic more flexible. Phthalates are found in many home and kitchen products (i.e, Tupperware). However, phthalates are also commonly found in baby care products, personal care products (i.e, perfume, eye shadow, moisturizer, nail polish, liquid soap and hair spray), pharmaceuticals, adhesives, children’s toys, building material (vinyl flooring). Phthalates are not chemically bound to plastics, and therefore easily leach out into food, saliva, and skin.

There are a few different types of phthalates. A very common one is called Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP). DEHP can be found in automotive upholstery, perfumes, carpets, insulation, mattress pads, shower curtains, clothing, children’s toys, umbrellas, straws, pesticides, medical tubing and medical bags.

DEHP is considered to be a known animal and possible human reproductive and developmental toxicant and is considered a chronic toxicant by the Federal Hazardous Substance Act. Ingestion is a common source of exposure, as DEHP is found in food packaging and easily leaches into food products. It also can be found in children’s toys (easily migrate out of the plastic and into saliva of children who chew on the toys), and is found in high concentrations in medical devices and products. DEHP is found in medical tubing and blood bags at very high concentrations (20–40%); therefore individuals receiving medical treatment can be exposed to very high levels of DEHP.

Phthalates impair neuroplasticity in the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in memory and learning.

Phthalates impair neuroplasticity in the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in memory and learning.

Phthalates may impair neuroplasticity in the Hippocampus — in adults and developing brains of children

There also appears to be a growing, yet limited, body of evidence highlighting the disruptive effect of phthalates on neuroplasticity in the hippocampus, the region of the brain involved in learning and memory.

It seems that exposure to phthalates has a more severe effect on the growing developing brain. Phalates are associated with widespread disruptions in hippocampal functional and neuroplasticity in developing brains in animal models.

Research shows that infant exposure to common lotions, powders, and shampoos is significantly associated with increased urinary concentrations of phthalates. The association is strongest in younger infants, who may be more vulnerable to developmental and reproductive toxicity of phthalates because of their immature organ systems and increased dosage per unit body surface area. Early toxin exposure may lead to impaired brain development during important time windows, which may increase the risk of learning disabilities and impaired social development (i.e., autistic spectrum disorders).

Over the past few years, some governments (e.g., Canada, United States, European Union) have recognized the harmful effects of phthalates on children and have therefore placed restrictions on the allowable concentrations of phthalates in children's products to less than 0.1%.

Phthalates impair proper masculinization of the male brain

Phthalates impair proper masculinization of male brains, which may result in a more feminized brain in those who are exposed.

Phthalates impair proper masculinization of male brains, which may result in a more feminized brain in those who are exposed.

Perinatal exposure of low doses of phthalates suppress activity of aromatase enzyme in the brains of male rats. Aromatase is needed for proper masculinization of male brains. Therefore, reductions in the activity of this enzyme may have drastic consequences for brain masculinization during neurodevelopment, resulting in a more feminized brain of males who are exposed to phthalates.

Phthalates wreak havoc on the reproductive system

Phthalates have been shown to inhibit Leydig cell and Sertoli cell function, both of which are important in masculinization of males. Leydig cells produce testerone. Sertoli cells play an important role in masculinization of developing male brains by converting testosterone into estradiol in the brain via the aromatase enzyme.

Phthalates have also been shown to decrease serum testosterone levels in adult males in animal studies by up to 60-85%. Phthalate-induced decreases in testosterone production have been reported to occur following doses in the range of 10–900 mg/kg in rat studies.

Tips: How to Limit Your Exposure to Phthalates

Critics of this article might argue that more research needs to be done to confirm the studies cited above, since the majority of these have been done in animal models. However, who wants to risk exposure and harm while ‘waiting’ for these confirmatory studies to be published? Why not empower yourself and your family with this knowledge and avoid phthalate containing products as best as possible?

While it is impossible and unrealistic to completely shield yourself and your family from phthalate-containing products, there are a few actions you can take to mitigate your exposure. Below are five tips to limiting your exposure to phthalates.


1 . Use glass food/drink containers and non-plastic kitchen utensils

Enough said.

2. Wash your fruits and veggies thoroughly


Certain pesticides contain phthalates (not to mention other neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors). Buy organic produce if possible, especially for fruits/veggies in which the outer layer is consumed. Organic produce can get pricey, so if you buy non-organic, wash your veggies thoroughly with a fruit/veggie spray.

3. Avoid plastic children’s toys

Purchase toys made out of wood and other natural ingredients for your children.

4. Use organic personal care products


I use organic shampoo, conditioners, lotions and soap. My favorite products are Dr Bronner’s Castille Soap, as well as products at 100PercentPure - a San Francisco based company that offers personal care products that are naturally derived. When possible, I prefer to use organic soap bars (to avoid plastic containers).

You can even make your own soap if you have the time, energy and patience; there are plenty of instructional websites for guidance on this topic.

A good rule of thumb when making decisions on what personal products to purchase is to look at the list of ingredients - the longer the list of names of chemicals you cannot pronounce, the more likely the product contains toxic ingredients.


5. Organic makeup for the ladies

Makeup use is used on a daily basis for many women. Many makeup products contain phthalates, which are highly lipid-soluble. Therefore, phthalates are great at leaching out of products and into skin. Buying organic makeup products can help limit exposure to phthalates. I buy my makeup products from 100PercentPure.

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